Just last month I wrote about how Denard Span was performing offensively. In that piece I concluded that Span was an average contributor on offense, which made him a valued member of the Nationals. I closed the piece saying "he probably just shouldn’t be batting leadoff, but that’s a discussion for another day." Well 36 straight games on-base later and that statement is no longer true. Now I still believe I was correct at the time of the article, so what has changed since that first post? To find out let's take a comparison of the stats I noted in the first piece and what they look like now.Read More
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With the halfway point reached and the All-Star Break fast approaching you're suddenly going to see a lot of columns on mid-term grades and with this being Matt Williams first season as a manager let's asses how he has done so far, or more importantly let's discuss an issue I never planned on touching. That issue is what Bryce Harper said the other day upon his return. That Zimmerman should stay in left, Rendon should be at third, and Espinosa should remain at second. These comments weren't too dissimilar from comments Ryan Zimmerman made a couple weeks ago on how he thought it best for the team that he stay in left, and that is what sparked me to write this. That and I read this column by Jonathan Bernhardt of Sports on Earth. It contains an important phrase that sparked my interest and got my mind working and that was that Bryce Harper's line-up is the best line-up for winning and Matt Williams' is not. The best offensive line-up for the Nationals does include Span over Espinosa but the best defensive line-up for the Nationals would be much different. It would have Zim in left, Rendon at third, and unlike what Harper and Zimmerman want it would have Werth on the bench with Span in center and Harper in right. Neither the best offensive line-up nor the best defensive line-up is what is best for winning. A balance of the two should be reached in order to put the best team possible on the field and that is the exact line-up and defensive arrangement Bryce Harper purposed, but none of that is what sparked my interest.
The most difficult job a baseball manager has is managing egos, but he only has to do that job when he makes a move that is going to harm one of his veteran's egos. Matt Williams has avoided doing that at all cost and he is lucky Ryan Zimmerman is such an amicable guy willing to do what is best for the team on his own. Jayson Werth before the season started said he was unwilling to lead-off and thus endth the conversation. Some players wanted Harper to be shown his place and so Matt Williams made an example of him and benched him in a game in which his spot in the line-up came back up with a chance to win the game. Matt Williams has yet to put himself in a situation where he has to manage egos and the only ego he is trampling on is that of a 21 year old kid the clubhouse believes hasn't earned anything.
Think about that for a second. Think of the leaked quotes you've read in Boswell and Mike Wise columns. Think about how the perception of Bryce Harper has changed since Matt Williams took over as manager. Before the season started the most pressing need with Harper was to corral his injury, and to keep him healthy. Matt Williams did the opposite and created the drama and idea that Harper doesn't hustle. All the evidence of Harper flying around the bases and running into walls went out the window with that one action and Matt Williams created an issue.
Before Matt Williams came to the Nationals Bryce Harper was seen as arrogant and pompous but he wasn't thought of as spoiled. Matt Williams batted him sixth, he's benched him, and sent the message that 21 year old baseball players are to be seen and not heard. Bryce Harper shouldn't be batting sixth. His career .827 OPS is up there with Ryan Zimmerman's .826 and Jayson Werth's .830. In other words there is your top of the order, and if we go back to 2012 the Nationals offense was the best it has ever been with those three batting in the order of Werth, Harper, Zimmerman. If Matt Williams was concerned with winning and was able to manage egos that would not only be the Nationals outfield, but the top of the order as well.
The 2014 Washington Nationals are winning, but they aren't doing it because of Matt Williams. By run differential the Washington Nationals should have a record of 47-36 instead of 45-38. Matt Williams' team has underperformed their expected record by two games. That in and of itself isn't big news, it could all be bad luck, but under Davey Johnson the 2013 Nationals and 2012 Nationals over-performed their expected record, and even a checked out Davey Johnson never batted Bryce Harper sixth in the batting order.
The perception of Bryce Harper has changed dramatically since Matt Williams took over. Davey Johnson treated Bryce Harper like the golden goose that was going to lead the Nationals to the promise land, and Matt Williams treats him like a 21 year-old kid that needs to shut his mouth until he earns the respect to open it. Under Davey Johnson there was very little drama concerning Bryce Harper, but with Matt Williams there have been columns after column saying Bryce Harper is the seventh best player on the Nationals and that until he wears a ring on his finger he isn't good enough to carry the spit buckets.
I'm certain Matt Williams cares about winning. If the Nationals don't win he loses his job, but he has yet to make any moves that will put the team in a better position to win and anger one of his veteran players. Perhaps all it is is that Matt Williams doesn't think he has enough pull in the clubhouse to anger a veteran, but a good diplomat, a good leader would find the words to convince the veteran that the betterment of the team and the betterment of his teammates is going to help him in the long run just as much. i.e. Jayson Werth doesn't want to lead-off, but if Jayson Werth leads off the Nationals have a far better shot at winning him a second World Series and if Werth can win a second World Series with a second team and Utley, Howard, and Rollins have won none without him then Werth can say he's the reason the Phillies and the Nationals won the World Series, ego managed.
Managing in the big leagues is about balance. A big league manager has to do what is best for the team and at the same time hold together a clubhouse of 25 personalities. The first goal goes a long way towards accomplishing the second goal in that scenario, and Matt Williams has shown he's learning. When Wilson Ramos failed to run out a grounder Williams didn't bench him. He pulled him aside and had a chat with him, privately, as he should have done with Bryce Harper. But how much and how quickly will Matt Williams learn and will it be in time for the Nationals to make it to or even win a World Series with their current set of players?
Heading into the 2014 Washington Nationals season the biggest debate going is who should lead off. It looks like Matt Williams is going to put Denard Span in that spot trusting that the comfort that he felt in the second half of 2013 is going to continue into 2014; while many stat inclined Nationals fans want it to be Jayson Werth as he has been the team's best OBP guy over the last couple seasons. There are other factors at work in this and the most important is that Jayson Werth doesn't want to lead-off. As a rookie manager Matt Williams needs the team leaders behind him. Ryan Zimmerman has bought into the idea of playing first every now and then, but Werth views himself as more of a run producer than a table setter, and angering him could cause Williams to lose the clubhouse and if that happens his time as a manager will be short lived. With all those factors on the table let's put some numbers to what it means to have Werth leading off over Span. If we use last season's OBP numbers there is a significant separation between Werth's .398 and Span's .327. That is a .071 point difference or 42 extra times on base. With Werth's 2013 wOBA that is 17 extra runs or 1.7 more wins. With the Nationals finishing four games back of a Wild Card spot in 2013 those 1.7 wins wouldn't have made a big difference. At best the Nationals are two games out of the playoffs instead of four but still out of the playoffs, and in 2013 Werth was significantly better than Denard Span. Now let's be a little more realistic.
There is a reason that single season stats aren't used when analyzing players. It is rare that a player will put up identical seasons in back to back years. In fact I'm not even certain that any player has had an identical season in back to back years. The truth is all players, for better or worse, regress to the mean. That means we aren't looking at a separation of a .398 OBP compared to a .327 OBP, but Werth's career average of .367 OBP compared to Span's .351 OBP. If both players find their level in 2014 then the difference between Werth leading off over Span is .016 points of OBP or 9 extra times on base over the course of 600 plate appearances. Using Werth's career wOBA that works out to an extra 3 runs.
Is it worth losing the clubhouse over 3 runs? Ask yourself this question and consider that the Nationals front office is considered one of the more analytical front offices in baseball and Matt Williams has stated he is aware of the advanced numbers. If I've run the math on the difference with Werth leading off vs. Span then you can be sure someone in the Nationals organization has run the math on it and that it was ten thousand times more accurate math. The people running baseball teams are doing so for a reason and are vastly smarter than any of us writing about it on our blogs.
At this point you're thinking, "But the Nationals couldn't score in the first half when Span was leading off and struggling doing so," and while Span did struggle in the first half of the season his leading off had less to do with the Nationals lack of ability to score runs than who was in the line-up with him. Whether Werth bats first or fifth is going to have little impact on run production. What does have a major impact is if Werth is removed completely from the line-up and replaced with Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, or Steve Lombardozzi. The reason the Nationals couldn't score runs in the first half of the season isn't because of who was leading off the line-up but because of who was in it.
Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos, and Bryce Harper all missed significant and concurrent time early in the season and this is when the Nationals struggled to score runs. Add in a one armed Danny Espinosa and that is four below .620, less than replacement level hitters, and a pitcher as part of a major league line-up. On April 17 Ryan Zimmerman hit the fifteen day DL and soon after that Werth suffered his own injury even though he wouldn't officially go on the DL until May 2. While those two were injured Wilson Ramos strained his hamstring and Bryce Harper injured his ribs on a wall in Atlanta and his knee on a wall in LA. Werth would return on June 4 along with Anthony Rendon coming up to replace Danny Espinosa.
That period of time is the most injured the Nationals were and a time when on a nightly basis the line-up had three to four of Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi, Kurt Suzuki, and Chad Tracy playing. From April 18 through June 3 the Washington Nationals averaged 3.2 runs a game, before those injuries they were averaging 4.3 runs a game and after the injuries 4.4 runs a game. It is amazing how one bad month and a half of run production can color the entire perception of a season, and how the blame can be passed from who was in the line-up to who was leading off the line-up.
Span struggled in 2013, but his struggles in the lead-off spot didn't have nearly the impact of being followed in the line-up by a bunch of dead weight. Having Werth in the line-up is the most important part of having Jayson Werth. The same goes with Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos, and Ryan Zimmerman. Where they hit is less important than they exist. If the Nationals suffer injuries and Nate McLouth, Scott Hairston, Jose Lobaton, and Danny Espinosa/Jamey Carroll/Zach Walters are no better than Chad Tracy, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore, Kurt Suzuki, and Roger Bernadina then the Nationals will once again struggle to score runs and it won't matter if Ricky Henderson or Tim Raines are leading off.
When the disappointment of the Washington Nationals 2013 is talked about and solutions for 2014 bandied about one of the main solutions people have is to sign a corner outfielder, move Harper to center, and Span to fourth outfielder. This isn't a bad idea in some cases. Curtis Granderson and Nelson Cruz could both be had on relatively short and cheap deals, but most people don't want short cheap deals. They want one of the two Boras clients, Choo or Ellsbury. Neither of those would be a good signing. Both will cost a draft pick, both will be expensive, and both will want long term deals, and as far as Choo goes he is in the midst of one of the better seasons of his career. This is the exact wrong moment to sign a player as a free agent, especially when they are represented by Scott Boras.
While it isn't a bad idea to sign someone to start in the outfield and have Span as a fourth outfielder it isn't a good idea either. The first year with a new team, in a new league can be a rough season for many players. The exact reason is unknown but Span is not the first, nor will he be the last, player to go to a new team and struggle in their first season, and Span's struggles have been odd. Against right handed pitchers he is the player he has always been, but against left handed pitchers he is different. For his career Span has a .738 OPS against right handers and a .725 OPS against left handers. Hardly a difference at all, but in 2013 he has a .763 OPS against right handers and a .426 OPS against left handers. Ask yourself this question when judging those numbers, what is more telling the 128 plate appearances in 2013 or the 977 for his career?Read More
A common refrain this off-season, as the LaRoche drama has dragged on is that the Nats need more left-handed power. Last season the Nats two main left-handed batters where Harper and LaRoche. With Harper moving from second to fourth in the line-up as expected, and Span at the top of the line-up the Nats will have the same number of left-handed batters, but they will lack the power that LaRoche brought. As has been pointed out before, Morse is just as effective vs. right handers hitting .292/.343/.487 for his career compared to .274/.348/.495 for LaRoche. With that little of a difference between the two the Nats don't have much need for more left handed power.
A league average left-handed batter hit .260/.332/.416 against right-handed pitching in 2012. Several of the Nats middle of the order bats are better than this. Ryan Zimmerman for his career is hitting .273/.333/.478 against right handers, Jayson Werth .260/.352/.436, and in his breakout season of 2012 Ian Desmond hit .289/.336/.492. All of them hit left handers better, but that isn't the point. The Nats have right-handed batters that can approximate the production of a league average left-hander.Read More
I like the Denard Span trade for many reasons. The Nationals have been looking for a center fielder since their inception and got one at the relatively low price of a minor league pitcher in Alex Meyer who has a ton of ML starting potential as well as bust/bullpen potential. I won't go further into the trade from a ML level since my colleague David Huzzard already went over that, but there are even more ripple effects caused by the trade when you look at it from a minor league and draft perspective.
Mike Rizzo has had his Adrian Veidt moment. After years and years of searching for a centerfielder that can lead-off the Nationals have found one in Denard Span. Consider for a moment that in 2010 the Nats team OBP from the lead-off position was .300 flat then dipped below .300 in 2011 rising to a still terrible .325 in 2012 while Denard Span for his career has a .357 OBP. If the Nationals had weaknesses in 2012 it was at the lead-off position and with outfield defense where Michael Morse is a -20.4 UZR/150 left fielder. Bryce Harper will improve on that and Denard Span combined with Harper and Werth will make the Nationals outfield a defensive sight to behold.
Since I am a little late to the Denard Span party here are a few links from around the web that wrap up the trade nicely from multiple perspectives.